This afternoon I drove through what’s called “Kisekka Market”, the energetic, manically overcrowded and gridlocked artisan hustlers’ hub in downtown Kampala, Uganda’s capital.
Despite the madness, it was heartening to see the hunger and drive. “Kisekka Market” is like River Road or Kirinyaga Street in Nairobi. I have seen similar creative hustling in downtown Accra, Dar es Salaam, and read stories of its cousins in Lagos, Dakar and other African cities.
The mind-boggling thing about these places is just how much second-hand American, European, and Asian hand spare parts and goods are traded. There is no used part of a car anywhere in the world you can’t find there. There are, of course, the second-hand clothes (mitumba as they are called in East Africa), second-hand shoes, second-hand bras, second-hand bed sheets, second-hand socks, second-hand underwear (for men, women, and children). The only second-hand things I have never seen in these markets are toothbrushes.
Mitumba are controversial. Pragmatic advocates for the poor hold their noses and argue that without mitumba, millions more Africans would be walking with their bare buttocks exposed and barefoot. The health industry, however, warns that it is a health hazard—honestly, how can you wear someone’s old knickers?
African economic nationalists argue, rightly, that mitumba are undermining textile businesses, and in many places have killed off local tailors. And, the hardline environmentalists worry that the “junk” refrigerators, computers, fans, CD players, and I don’t know what else, are creating ticking e-waste timebombs.
I tend to share some of these concerns—until I look at the big picture. These second-hand cars, clothes, and spare parts that the West and Asia ship to Africa are, actually, the blunt and murky edge of global recycling.
Poverty and corrupt rule has turned Africans into easily the WORLD’s TOP RECYLERS. We give a second life to the world’s junk. It you take pride, disgrace, and the awful rash – and possibly infection that you might get from wearing an underwear that was probably pulled off a dead person in New York – out of the equation, things begin to look interesting.
There are many African countries that are ruled by clueless, corrupt, and cruel despots. If we are to have strongmen, let’s have those who can deliver and change things. Take Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew, who is now 88 years old and has been out of office for years. I think he can be 10 times better than 20 African big men that I can think of offhand.
And, then there is former US President Bill Clinton. A second-hand Clinton presidency could salvage many long-suffering African nations. And if you asked the people of a potentially great country like Nigeria that is today tormented by all sorts of sectarian demons, whether they want a mitumba Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia’s iron-fisted but economic wonder-Big Man, to runs things in Abuja, don’t be surprised if 65 percent voted “yes”.
I kept the best and most selfish choice for last. For Uganda’s recycled former leader, I would pick Brazil’s Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. Look what he did for Brazil. And, unlike Lee Kuan Yew and Mahathir, he was a liberal who believed in media and other social freedoms. So, a mitumba Lula for Uganda!
© Charles Onyango-Obbo / twitter@cobbo3